For the adult of 14

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 14.03.10

Melvin Burgess looked tired. India had been hectic: an arts and literary festival in Mumbai in the first week of February and then Calcutta for British Council’s Lit Sutra programme that introduces contemporary British writers to the Indian audience. His teenage novel Junk (1996) won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian children’s fiction prize.

It is a disturbing account of teenage homelessness and heroin addiction on the streets of Bristol, and has been adapted for television.

“Abuse in orphanages and homes is rampant. There’d be instances of AIDS, teenage pregnancy. I raised those issues in my book,” says Burgess (picture by Bishwarup Dutta). Asked why he chose to write for teenagers, Burgess said: “Well, at 10 you are an experienced child, at 14 you are an experienced adult.”

Melvin wrote his autobiography, but could not find a publisher as it contained “a lot of personal information about a lot of people who are living”. “My publisher was frightened of libel,” says Burgess, who finds the European Human Rights Act, 2000, a bit daunting.

“On one hand you have freedom of speech, on the other you have right to privacy.” So he rewrote his autobiography changing names, places, gender and hair colour, but then gave up.

“This means whenever you come across an autobiography you begin to suspect it.”

Wit sutra

Lit Sutra also introduced the city to two British crime writers: Mark Billingham, also a stand-up comedian, and Denise Mina, no less wacky. They were at Starmark discussing “Brit Crime” and ended up discussing letters from their readers, and Dan Brown. Sajni Mukherji, Metro on Sunday columnist, moderated the discussion that had the audience in splits.

Readers, and among them serial killers, wrote disturbing letters to both Billingham and Mina. “A drunk reader wrote how some people in his family deserved to die because of the things they did in the past. And then he wrote to say he had killed someone!” said Mina, who writes crime thrillers.

Billingham, whose books have made it to the Sunday Times top 10 bestseller, had his own share of stories. “Once a serial killer wrote to me complaining how badly he was treated. And he ended his letter with ‘the next move is yours’. And I was like oh, is it!”

Then there was a healthy Dan Brown demolition session. “He took three years to write Da Vinci Code! I wanted to ask him what he was doing for two years and 11 months,” said Billingham.